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Thursday, September 17, 12:30pm - 1:30pm (Panel)

TikTok Ya Don’t Stop: Youth Activism & Creativity

  • “OK, Boomer”: TikTok, Climate Change, and Gen Z Musical Activism, Matthew DelCiampo (U of Puget Sound)
  • Playtime: What indie youth in Athens, Georgia can teach us about changing the world, Grace Hale (U of Virginia)
  • Brazil’s Musical Youth Vs. The Dictatorship: Three youthful, music movements that shaped Musica Popular Brasileira, Allen Thayer (writer)
  • Only Wanna Sing?: Youth and Creativity in the Worship Music Economy, Clare O’Connor (USC)

 Presentation Descriptions

“OK, Boomer”: TikTok, Climate Change, and Gen Z Musical Activism, Matthew DelCiampo (U of Puget Sound)

In this presentation, I trace how climate change activism is communicated via the social media app, TikTok, and consider the role that popular music plays in such mediated activism. In the last two years, TikTok has become massively popular among teens and young adults. Users create short video clips that often draw upon internet memes, popular culture, contemporary music and dance. Video creators build upon one another by using common hashtags, emulating a generic style, and utilizing the same background song. TikTok users address climate change by recontextualizing well known popular music to comment upon melting sea ice, wildfires, rising global temperatures, and other effects of climate change. This results both in a corpus of musicians—such as Halsey, Matchbox 20, and Billy Joel, for example—who are unwittingly participating in online musical activism, as well as a generation of TikTok activist-musicians (Pedelty 2016) who knowingly use such music to punctuate their environmental movement. Within TikTok and elsewhere, members of the Baby Boomer generation are often blamed as the responsible culprits of environmental destruction, and as a result the phrase “OK, Boomer” appears frequently throughout the climate change media on the platform. I argue that the use of music on TikTok occasions a critical examination of how climate narratives are communicated throughout online spaces and among teens and young adults. Such narratives exist within a technocultural sphere that privileges youth participation and is often pitted in opposition to “Boomer” culture, despite some of the musical source material. I consider the recent on/offline activism such as the September 2019 climate strikes, the work of Greta Thunberg, and the #teamtrees campaign, and argue that popular music has played a key role in efforts toward awareness, recruitment, and mobilization.


Playtime: What indie youth in Athens, Georgia can teach us about changing the world, Grace Hale (U of Virginia)

We are hope despite the times. —R.E.M., “These Days” (1986)

In Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Magic sparkled like sweat on the skin of dancers at a party or a club. Promise winked underfoot like the bits of broken glass embedded in the downtown sidewalks. A new world seemed to be emerging out of our creativity, our music and art, and our politics, but also the way we understood ourselves and related to each other.

In my memory, the weight of the air on summer nights made possibility seem like a substance I could hold in my hand. Always, local bands played and people listened—at practice spaces and house parties and venues like the 40 Watt. People went to hear their roommate or boyfriend or coworker play one night and urged everyone to come and see their group the next. Easy to make and easy to hear, live music was everywhere. We used it to reinvent and express ourselves and connect with each other. We used it to live.

The scene was our answer to what we understood as the failures and limits of our nation. And the lessons we learned—question the givens, find something to do that engages your passions, build community into whatever you do, and stop often for beauty and pleasure—radically transformed the trajectory of our lives. My paper uses Athens, Georgia in the late seventies and eighties to think about the relationship between youth and cultural and political change in Reagan’s America.

[My book Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture will be published in March, 2020]


Brazil’s Musical Youth Vs. The Dictatorship: Three youthful, music movements that shaped Musica Popular Brasileira, Allen Thayer (writer)

In 1968, the year that Brazil’s military dictatorship tightened its hold over Brazilian society, three distinct styles of popular music rivaled for the attention of South America’s largest population of young people. Outside of Brazil, Tropicália is best known for its bold mashing of British invasion-influenced psychedelic rock with regional Brazilian styles as embodied by the outrageous teenaged group, Os Mutantes, but it’s domestic following at that time paled in comparison to the appeal of two other trends: Jovem Guarda and the politicized Festival Music movement.

For a brief moment in the late sixties all three musical trends coexisted, but by the early seventies all three had collapsed into each other, having cross-pollinated to such a degree that the artists that previously typified their respective styles all co-mingled and collaborated in the new, dominant big tent of popular music, creatively dubbed: Musica Popular Brasileira, or M.P.B. Did M.P.B. represent a depoliticized musical retreat from the dictatorship’s increasingly harsh clampdown on all forms of political expression or a sophisticated evolution and melding of divergent strains of youthful, musical angst?

Tracing the origins and exploring the expressions of these three tributaries of M.P.B., Allen Thayer, will discuss how Tropicália, Jovem Guarda, and the Festival Music movements responded to the nascent military dictatorship in their own unique ways, providing Brazilian youth, respectively with catharsis, escapism and confrontation. As the sixties gave way to the seventies, Brazil’s young musicians found new ways to cope with and confront their military masters. Many sought refuge abroad, others became increasingly clever in their attempts to outwit the military’s censors and some sought refuge in esoteric escapism, and all weathered the duration of the dictatorship in the safety-in-numbers catch-all “genre” of M.P.B.


Only Wanna Sing?: Youth and Creativity in the Worship Music Economy, Clare O’Connor (USC)

With their album *Youth Revival*, Hillsong Young & Free (Y&F) established themselves as a leading force in Christian EDM. The album was nominated for the 2016 Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album and included hits like “Only Wanna Sing,” a song that concisely expresses not only the zeal but also the self-conscious motif that pervades this milieu: “This is no performance… I’m not chasing feelings … I can’t imagine why I would do this all for hype/When it’s all to lift you high… I only wanna sing/If I sing for you my King.” These disclaimers resonate with listeners whose anxiety about the allure of individualism and celebrity—dimensions of pop music that have long been controversial among evangelicals—is compounded by the precarity of today’s labor markets. This anxiety is acute for young Christian musicians, thousands of whom flock to Y&F’s mothership, Australian Pentecostal Hillsong Church, a global leader in the worship music economy and a multi-million-dollar enterprise that has placed "creatives" at the center of its evangelizing strategy.

Hillsong fosters adherents’ creative output through an expansive infrastructure—a record label, an accredited arts college, annual stage productions, touring conferences, multiple media platforms—within which young artists vie for placements, embracing the illusory horizontalism and upbeat entrepreneurial ethos promoted by church leaders. Indeed, because Hillsong’s logic of production requires constant creativity and innovation, church leaders must sponsor adherents’ autonomy to develop their own creative means but not the autonomy to determine their own goals, lest they depart from the goals of the church. This is accomplished through managerial strategies such as fostering the self-consciousness that finds expression in Y&F’s celebrated lyrics. For their part, young Hillsong artists embrace these strategies as they try to navigate contradictory demands for artistic self-realization, marketability in a gig economy, and self-abnegation in service to the church. In this way, their religiosity places them at the fore of struggles against the contradiction inherent in neoliberalism whereby “creativity”—that universal good, the human spark—is weaponized as a strategy of capital accumulation. Given these dynamics, Hillsong ought to be understood as an advanced laboratory for the development of neoliberal strategies, particularly concerning youth and creative labor. How, then, might we study it as a privileged site with lessons regarding this more general phenomenon?